Eulogy for an outlier

New Mexico, October 1988.  The weather had finally cleared after days of cold rain now gave way to an amazingly sunny and crisp fall day.  The golden Aspen leaves shimmered in the faint breeze against an unreal blue sky creating an effect that from a distance looked like thousands of tiny mirrors briefly catching the sun as they danced.  To see mountains covered with Aspens in the fall is not to be missed.  

I’m renting a room in a beautiful adobe house in New Mexico as I’m completing college. The first part of my extended college career was in upstate NY.  All of my friends have since graduated and moved on to start their lives, but I had allowed myself to drift during my senior year and was now playing catch up at the University of New Mexico. 

I was living with two other people, one of whom was a Buddhist who was also a divorce attorney.  An interesting mix that made for some strange late-night conversations.  He owned a shotgun in the more than likely event that things at work got out of hand and the notion of calling upon the law would be a quaint and unnecessary formality. It was during some of these conversations that I quickly learned that being right is often less important than getting along or at least pretending to.  He spoke often of the lotion parlors on the fringe edges of Albuquerque where he got massages and invited me to join him.  This was an invitation to enter far deeper into his seedy world than I ever cared to go, and each time I had to politely decline.  I can still hear him doing his Buddhist chanting between clients as I arrived home from classes and parked my bicycle in the garage.  I have no idea how those chants could have resonated with him or what spiritual meaning he could derive, as his very existence seemed to be an affront to the religion.

My other housemate was a real salt of the earth type.  Generous, funny, and always in the company of Henry, his aging dog who not only was going deaf with age but had the worst dandruff of any creature I’d ever seen.  I didn’t even know that dogs got dandruff until I met Henry.  The look on his greying face seemed to acknowledge his horrendous skin condition, even apologize for it.  He bore a perpetual look of shame. 

Every night Henry was fed on the back concrete steps behind the house where he had to fight for his dinner amongst giant roaches.  He often wasn’t up for the fight and I couldn’t blame him.  This left him constantly hungry, and I was content to share what I had with him.  Henry didn’t seem to mind my cooking or somewhat limited diet.  Roaches have always freaked me out, and the memory of them swarming over a plate of dog food still gives me the willies.  Thankfully they avoided coming in the house as some kind of agreement between the owner and the roaches had been brokered before my arrival, but the backyard was forever off-limits to me for this reason.

Opening my front door every day to the snow-covered Sangre Cristo Mountains provided me a nice buzz, similar to caffeine.  There is affirmation in such natural beauty.  The mountains turn crimson at sunset to earn their name: Blood of Christ.  I’m living just a few streets over from the entrance to the airport, but you’d never know it if you didn’t venture out that way.  I never heard the planes as the runways didn’t direct the traffic in our direction.  There was one runway used by the military which was oriented so that the occasional incoming flight would pass low over the house.  The massive scale of these behemoths never failed to stun, silently gliding as they passed overhead with their engines quietly idle in preparation for landing.  You’d never know it was coming until it was right on top of you.  The size and immediacy of their sudden presence would jolt you out of your late afternoon Southwestern complacency. You could almost reach out your hand and rub its belly. 

On this particular afternoon, I was visited by an old college friend from my time at Syracuse, as a brand new and fully tricked-out Saab pulled up to the house.   All of the windows were open and I could hear the unmistakable voice of William S. Boroughs reading some program loudly through the car’s powerful speakers.  I don’t know if this was done for effect by Marc to assert his quirkiness, or if this was just what he was listening to at the time.  Even if he had turned up the volume to make an entrance, the fact that he even owned a spoken-word audiotape of Burroughs added to Marc’s otherness.  He quietly, and sometimes overtly, celebrated it.

Marc in a new Saab was an inexplicable contradiction.  Through all the years we’ve known each other Marc never had more than six dollars in his pocket, and probably less than that in his bank account.  It turned out that Marc had enlisted with a car delivery service in New York which matched people going cross country with cars which needed to be transported.  You had a fixed amount of time and free transportation.  Marc was on his way to San Francisco and was stopping off unannounced to visit for a couple of days.

It’s worth mentioning that Marc had a unique ability to talk both cryptically and cynically very quickly. This trait limited the number of people in his inner circle to just those who could get past this social handicap. If he wanted to spar with you, which was most of the time, he could use this gift as a weapon.  He would often leave others in the conversation mute while they processed and decoded what he had just said.

Marc had flaunted a kind of meta showmanship in his mini soliloquies that included irony, hostility, fatalism, and a false humility all at once.  He did this with a succinct blast of words, seemingly without effort.  By the time you unpacked what he’d said, you realized that he had won the argument, insulted you, had forgiven your lack of ability to keep pace with him, apologized for his insult, threw in a non-sequitur for fun and had moved on to the next topic.  Not only had you been beaten by his patented brand of logic and discourse, but now as you stood there exhausted you realized that he was just getting started.  It’s fair to say that his mind worked differently than most, which would serve as both his pride and his downfall, often simultaneously.

On the first evening of Marc’s visit, we decided to see a film which was showing in the campus movie theatre where I worked as a projectionist.  I had the night off, and the theatre was sold out.  It doesn’t matter what film was supposed to be playing, as Marc was unwittingly about to ensure that no film got shown that evening. 

Slipping in before the doors were opened to the public we secured the best seats in the house, fifth-row center.  I need to sit where the screen fills my peripheral view so that I can fully immerse myself and get lost in the film.  Now at ten minutes to showtime, there’s not an empty seat to be found.  A couple of stragglers looked around desperately trying to find seats as I headed to the concession stand for popcorn and drinks.  Marc just had to hold my seat until I got back, a task he performed more effectively than I could have imagined. 

While I was looting the concession stand, (another one of my perks as an employee), I heard a woman scream from inside the theater.   This was quickly followed by a lot more people yelling.  In my gut, I knew that Marc had to be a factor.  I’ve seen him antagonize people before, but I had only been gone for a few minutes.  Could he have turned a whole movie theatre crowd against him so quickly?  As I headed back the red padded double doors to the theatre burst open and the rush of people almost knocked me down.  People were trying to climb over each other to get out of their seats and to the exits.  Some of them were covered in a mysterious white foam, and there was an acrid smell I didn’t recognize.  My popcorn got knocked out of my hands and spilled to the floor as people pushed frantically past me to exit the theater. As I fought my way back inside I witnessed total turmoil.  There were more patches of white foam and the strange smell was much stronger now.  People were truly frightened and moved away from the epicenter of the conflict like detergent dispersing oil droplets in liquid, fleeing from the center in every direction simultaneously.  In this new clearing sat Marc in the fifth-row center, calm, smiling, and quite in his element, just where I had left him minutes before.  He was the only person still sitting, and a well-dressed but clearly crazed man held a freshly discharged fire extinguisher and was menacing Marc with it. He was yelling at Marc, jabbing the extinguisher towards him to punctuate his insults.  He had just finished spraying the audience with the extinguisher and was ready to beat Marc senseless with it now.

There had been a dispute over my vacant seat as I had left to get snacks.  The well-dressed man had worked his way to the center of our row, stepping over people in an attempt to get my seat.  There may have been a misunderstanding, or perhaps Marc thought he’d put one up on the scoreboard before the movie, but things got heated, then personal.  Marc was having none of it. He bent that poor bugger’s brain so deliciously, that within three minutes this guy became so enraged that he worked his way back through the row and seized a fire extinguisher from its wall mount and sprayed it indiscriminately throughout the crowd. He was so upset by what Marc had said to him that he just snapped.

It took me countless retellings of this story over the years before someone pointed out the obvious to me.  Since the show was sold out and I hadn’t bought tickets for us this meant that we were now oversold by two.  Marc and I had displaced two paying customers by the fact that we just showed up and took seats, indeed the best seats in the house. Nobody else figured this out or knew that we hadn’t paid, but it was the impetus for the fight over the seats.

I still have no idea what Marc said. I asked him, desperate for him to reveal some of his dark secrets, but he never told me.  Three minutes to break a man in half must be some kind of record. That’s a gift.

Sometimes as we are finding our way in life we attempt to shed aspects of our past that we associate with hardship or difficulty, especially if things are going well for us.  This can include friends.  Needy friends who don’t grow as fast as we do and remind us of who we once were at the very moment that we are trying to become someone else.  Being Marc’s friend wasn’t always easy as he demanded full attention, and there were always conflicts in his life that had no simple solutions. 

Upon hearing about Marc’s death I was told that a Facebook memorial page was established by his girlfriend.  It’s 2014 and this is how we manage and process death now.  I didn’t know her, as Marc and I had not stayed in touch as much as we could have in the past twenty-five years despite both of us working in Manhattan.  

I looked through the Facebook page to see what clues I could unearth about both Marc’s life and of course, his death.  I also looked for names I recognized from our time together in school.  There were a lot of people whom I didn’t know.  A strange feeling overcame me where I felt that I had some propriety of friendship over these other people in his life.  That my experience was somehow more genuine then theirs could have been.  A selfish thought given that we hadn’t been in touch for a quarter of a century.  Scrolling further down the page I now saw names and faces of people whom we went to school with. Former lovers and once cherished friends whose lives continued as I looked away. 

I dreaded the drive to Brooklyn.  It wasn’t the Brooklyn Queens Expressway traffic or the ridiculous task of parking but because I was going to help assess Marc’s belongings after his death.  The apartment was messy, Marc hadn’t changed much since college.  Most of the things would have to be donated as there was nothing of any intrinsic value. 

Looking through piles of papers and photographs, I then saw the spool of thick black cord which had been recently purchased lying on a table by the window. It stuck out in its newness.  On top of the spool lay a utility knife.  Marc had cut off the required length which was still fastened to a doorknob in the bedroom.  His girlfriend said that Marc had become uncharacteristically distant before his death, that he needed to do that to deny a backlash of empathy from swaying his decision.

Ankylosing spondylitis felled him, but that’s not what stopped his breathing.  Much to the horror of his girlfriend who found him dead by hanging, Marc could no longer endure the physical pain which in turn fed his mental anguish.  His spine was slowly fusing and the pain was excruciating. For years this came to influence every aspect of his life and has now dictated his death.  People say that suicide is the ultimate selfish act, and I have repeated those sentiments myself each time that I have encountered it.  I am coming around to see that the survivors who say this may be the selfish ones, however.  As I learned more about Marc’s physical pain and alienation, is it not selfish for me to insist that he stay near to me because I need him to be there as a remnant of my past?  I’m was angry with Marc when he left us, but now I wonder who could have endured his emotional and physical pain for such a sustained time.  A long time ago we were co-conspirators in survival.  This was never acknowledged between us implicitly, but always understood and now I miss him terribly.

There was a concerted effort made to not discuss Marc’s depression or the circumstances of his death at his memorial service.  Appearances needed to be upheld, and this was deemed to be too undignified.  But to deny the circumstances of Marc’s death is to deny the circumstances of his life and I won’t do that, it’s too easy.  It was not my place to make a protest, and so I dealt with this issue as delicately as I could when speaking at his memorial service.

“As a father, I try to impress the importance to my son of working hard and learning how to compassionately compete in this world because the work that we do together now will directly impact the types of options and opportunities he’ll have for the rest of his life.

Princeton or Florida State? New Porsche or old Buick? Greenwich or the Bronx? Martinis or Heroin?

Now I think of Marc.  Marc with a C, that first clue upon meeting him that he was different.

And I think that for some of us the options and opportunities which are in front of us aren’t always tangible.   They’re not always things which present themselves to us clearly.  Sometimes they present themselves as traps or prisons.  They can hide from us, trick, and deceive us. Sometimes they are cruel and show themselves only after they’ve expired. Options and opportunities can present themselves as being wholly out of your control as if they were the currency of others. 

But the best options come from within.

They are born, fed, and nurtured just like the rest of our needs.

With depression comes the realization (sometimes true, sometimes not) that we have reduced options and opportunities compared to what we think we should have, or what those around us have.  We have nothing to call our work, lose our money, lose our friends, the ability to keep pace with those around us.  We’re homeless, can’t care for ourselves, fall prey to the very system we helped to put in place whose job it is to hide us away from our better selves.  We are forgotten, then become invisible.

The ability to survive comes from our ability to keep the options flowing in the hopes that opportunities will follow. Many of us are on the outside of the larger corporate world, its structure, and its rewards.  We go it alone and roll the dice.  Marc was certainly of this world.  It requires faith in yourself that you alone can keep those options flowing.  You tell those around you that you’re going to make your own options, that you can’t sit behind a desk ten hours a day.  It takes courage.  You make tough choices every day and the stakes are high.

I think that one of the most frightening things in this world is the realization that you are losing your options.  One by one they fall away until suddenly you are out of options- whether real or imagined.  Your tank is dry.  Survival depends upon the ability to know that this isn’t true, that while you may have blind spots, you can still make something out of thin air, that another option or opportunity will come soon.

I’ve known a few people who have battled depression their whole lives.  I listen and watch and think to myself that these broken people are much stronger than the rest of us “normal” folks.  They fight every hour to overcome and push on… until one day they don’t.

They get somehow unfathomably convinced that there were no more options left.

The presence of all of us in this room today is proof of Marc’s ability to overcome the feelings that he carried for as long as I knew him that was broken, and couldn’t fit into our world.  Marc traveled the world and touched so many lives, until one day he didn’t.”

Let’s go back to when Marc and I were in class together at Syracuse in the mid-1980s.  There were about ten of us in the classroom casually talking before class had begun, and people were still trickling in and finding seats.  Marc’s housemate had been telling us how Marc had recently been loudly talking in his sleep.  He could be heard from the next room.  Thirsty for insight into his subconscious, Marc got his hands on a voice-activated cassette recorder.  He’d put in fresh batteries and set it on his night table beside his bed.  In the morning he awoke to find the little red light blinking indicating that a new message had been recorded.  The class around him had stopped their idle conversations and were all listening intently.  Marc relished the attention, it fed him.  There was only one thing which he said, which he had passionately repeated several times throughout the night. “Thank you.”